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Penalties of infamy ought neither to be too common, nor to fall upon too many persons at a time; not too common, because the real and too frequent effects of matters of opinion weaken the force of opinion itself; not too general, because the disgrace of many persons resolves itself into the disgrace of none of them.What is the best way of preventing crimes?

Nor are such scruples to convict unreasonable, when we consider the number who on apparently conclusive evidence have been falsely and irrevocably condemned to death. Playgoers who have seen ‘The Lyons Mail’ will remember how barely Lesurques, the Parisian gentleman, escaped punishment for the guilt of Dubosc, the robber and murderer. But the moral of the story is lost in the play, for Lesurques actually was executed for the crime of Dubosc, by reason of the strong resemblance he bore to him, the latter only receiving the due reward for his crimes after the innocent man had died as a common murderer on the scaffold. Then there are cases in which, as in the famous case of Calas, some one having committed suicide, some one else is executed as the murderer. That dead men tell no tales is as true of men hung as of men murdered, and the innocence of an executed man may be proved long afterwards or not at all.

It is not true that the sciences have always been injurious to mankind; when they were so, it was an inevitable evil. The multiplication of the human race over the face of the earth introduced war, the ruder arts, and the first laws, mere temporary agreements which perished with the necessity that gave rise to them. This was mankind’s primitive philosophy, the few elements of which were just, because the indolence and slight wisdom of their framers preserved them from error. But with the multiplication of men there went ever a multiplication of their wants. Stronger and more lasting impressions were, therefore, needed, in order to turn them back from repeated lapses to that primitive state of disunion which each return to it rendered worse. Those primitive delusions, therefore, which peopled the earth with false divinities and created an invisible universe that governed our own, conferred a great benefit—I mean a great political benefit—upon humanity. Those men were benefactors of their kind, who dared to deceive them and drag them, docile and ignorant, to worship at the altars. By presenting to them objects that lay beyond the scope of sense and fled from their grasp the nearer they seemed to approach them—never despised, because never well understood—they concentrated their divided passions upon a single object[247] of supreme interest to them. These were the first steps of all the nations that formed themselves out of savage tribes; this was the epoch when larger communities were formed, and such was their necessary and perhaps their only bond. I say nothing of that chosen people of God, for whom the most extraordinary miracles and the most signal favours were a substitute for human policy. But as it is the quality of error to fall into infinite subdivisions, so the sciences that grew out of it made of mankind a blind fanatical multitude, which, shut up within a close labyrinth, collides together in such confusion, that some sensitive and philosophical minds have regretted to this day the ancient savage state. That is the first epoch in which the sciences or rather opinions are injurious.

Men of letters as a rule did not speak with this boldness, but in conscious opposition to professional and popular feeling expressed their doubts with a hesitation that was almost apologetic. So, for example,[50] Goldsmith could not ‘avoid even questioning the validity of that right which social combinations have assumed of capitally punishing offences of a slight nature.’[31] Strange, that in England such an argument should ever have seemed a daring novelty, a thing to be said tentatively and with reserve!The more speedily and the more nearly in connection with the crime committed punishment shall follow, the more just and useful it will be. I say more just, because a criminal is thereby spared those useless and fierce torments of suspense which are all the greater in a person of vigorous imagination and fully conscious of his own weakness; more just also, because the privation of liberty, in itself a punishment, can only precede the sentence by the shortest possible interval compatible with the requirements of necessity. Imprisonment, therefore, is simply the safe custody of a citizen pending the verdict of his guilt; and this custody, being essentially disagreeable, ought to be as brief and easy as possible. The shortness of the time should be measured both by the necessary length of the preparations for the trial and by the seniority of claim to a judgment. The strictness of confinement should be no more than is necessary either for the prevention of escape or for guarding against the concealment of the proof of crimes. The trial itself should be finished in the shortest time possible. What contrast[186] more cruel than that between a judge’s ease and a defendant’s anguish? between the comforts and pleasures of an unfeeling magistrate on the one hand, and the tears and wretchedness of a prisoner on the other? In general, the weight of a punishment and the consequence of a crime should be as efficacious as possible for the restraint of other men and as little hard as possible for the individual who is punished; for one cannot call that a proper form of society, where it is not an infallible principle, that its members intended, in constituting it, to subject themselves to as few evils as possible.

The same may be said, though for a different reason, where there are several accomplices of a crime, not all of them its immediate perpetrators. When several men join together in an undertaking, the greater its[163] risk is, the more will they seek to make it equal for all of them; the more difficult it will be, therefore, to find one of them who will be willing to put the deed into execution, if he thereby incurs a greater risk than that incurred by his accomplices. The only exception would be where the perpetrator received a fixed reward, for then, the perpetrator having a compensation for his greater risk, the punishment should be equalised between him and his accomplices. Such reflections may appear too metaphysical to whosoever does not consider that it is of the utmost advantage for the laws to afford as few grounds of agreement as possible between companions in crime.… The cries of sages and philosophers are as the cries of the innocent man on the wheel, where they have never prevented, nor will ever prevent him from expiring, with his eyes upturned to heaven, which will perhaps some day stir up enthusiasm, or religious madness, or some other avenging folly, to accomplish all that their wisdom has failed to do. It is never the oration of the philosopher which disarms the powerful ruler; it is something else, which the combination of chance events brings about. Meanwhile we must not seek to force it from him, but must entreat humbly for such good as he can grant us, that is which he can grant us without injury to himself.

In every criminal case a judge ought to form a complete syllogistic deduction, in which the statement of the general law constitutes the major premiss; the conformity or non-conformity of a particular action with the law, the minor premiss; and acquittal or punishment, the conclusion. When a judge is obliged, or of his own accord wishes, to make even no more than two syllogisms, the door is opened to uncertainty.

It does not follow, because the laws do not punish intentions, that therefore a crime begun by some action, significative of the will to complete it, is undeserving of punishment, although it deserves less than a crime actually committed. The importance of preventing an attempt at a crime justifies a punishment; but, as there may be an interval between the attempt and the execution, the reservation of a greater punishment for a consummated crime may present a motive for its non-completion.There is an apparent discrepancy in Beccaria’s first condemning death as too severe a punishment and then recommending lifelong servitude as one of more deterrent power; but Beccaria would have said that the greater certainty of the latter more than compensated for the greater severity of the other. As regards the relative power of the two punishments, it probably varies in different individuals, some men having a greater dread of the one, and some of the other. The popular theory certainly goes too far, when it assumes that all men have a greater dread of the gallows than of anything else. When George III. once granted a pardon to the female convicts in Newgate on condition of their transportation to New South Wales, though seventeen of them accepted[39] the offer, there were yet six who preferred death to a removal from their native country. It is also stated by Howard that in Denmark the punishment in cases of infanticide, namely, imprisonment for life, with labour and an annual whipping on the place of the crime, was ‘dreaded more than death,’ which it superseded as a punishment.

So signal a success in France was a sufficient guarantee of success elsewhere. A knowledge of the book must have speedily crossed the Channel, for Blackstone quoted it the very year after its publication. It was first translated into English in 1768, together with Voltaire’s commentary; but just as Morellet’s translation professed to have been published at Philadelphia, so the English translator kept his name a secret. The Economical Society of Berne, which was accustomed to bestow a gold medal on the writer of the best treatise on any given subject, violated its own rules in favour of the anonymous writer of the ‘Delitti,’ inviting him to disclose his name, and to accept the gold medal ‘as a sign of esteem due to a citizen who had dared to raise his voice in favour of humanity against the most deeply engrained prejudices.’After crimes of high treason come crimes opposed to the personal security of individuals. This security being the primary end of every properly constituted society, it is impossible not to affix to the violation of any citizen’s right of personal security one of the severest punishments that the laws allow.These customs had doubtless their defenders, and left the world not without a struggle. It must have cost some one, whosoever first questioned the wisdom of hanging animals or murdering a criminal’s relations, as much ridicule as it cost Beccaria to question the efficacy of torture or the right of capital punishment. But the boldness of thought in that unknown reformer was probably lost sight of in the arrogance of his[73] profanity, and he doubtless paid with his own neck for his folly in defending the pig’s.



Something, however, occurred more fatal to the reform of our penal laws than even the philosophy of Paley, and that was the French Revolution. Before 1790 there had been 115 capital offences in France; so that to alter the criminal law in England was to follow a precedent of unpleasant auspices. Reform not unnaturally savoured of revolution, and especially a reform of the penal laws. In 1808 Romilly said he would advise anyone, who desired to realise the mischievous effects of the French Revolution in England to attempt some legislative reform on humane and liberal principles. With bitterness he tells the story of a young nobleman, who, addressing him insolently at the bar of the House of Commons, informed him that he for his part was for hanging all criminals. Romilly observed that he supposed he meant punishments should be certain and the laws executed, whatever they were. ‘No, no,’ was the reply, ‘it isn’t that. There is no good done by mercy. They only get worse: I would hang them all up at once.’ And this represented the prevalent[59] opinion. Windham, in a speech against the Shoplifting Bill, inquired, ‘Had not the French Revolution begun with the abolition of capital punishment in every case?… Was such a system as this was to be set up without consideration against that of Dr. Paley!’[36]

Some remnants of the laws of an ancient conquering people, which a prince who reigned in Constantinople some 1,200 years ago caused to be compiled, mixed up afterwards with Lombard rites and packed in the miscellaneous volumes of private and obscure commentators—these are what form that set of traditional opinions which from a great part of Europe receive nevertheless the name of laws; and to this day it is a fact, as disastrous as it is common, that some opinion of Carpzovius, some old custom pointed out by Clarus, or some form of torture suggested in terms of complacent ferocity by Farinaccius, constitute the laws, so carelessly followed by those, who in all trembling ought to exercise their government over the lives and fortunes of men. These laws, the dregs of the most barbarous ages, are examined in this book in so far as regards criminal jurisprudence, and I have dared to expose their faults to the directors of the public happiness in a style which may keep at[112] a distance the unenlightened and intolerant multitude. The spirit of frank inquiry after truth, of freedom from commonplace opinions, in which this book is written, is a result of the mild and enlightened Government under which the Author lives. The great monarchs, the benefactors of humanity, who are now our rulers, love the truths expounded, with force but without fanaticism, by the obscure philosopher, who is only roused to indignation by the excesses of tyranny, but is restrained by reason; and existing abuses, for whosoever well studies all the circumstances, are the satire and reproach of past ages, and by no means of the present age or of its lawgivers.CHAPTER XVII. BANISHMENT AND CONFISCATIONS.



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